Aaron Bartolain has a lot of football left in his heart. What he doesn't have a surplus of is time.
He's not alone. It happens every year in college football across the country. Bartolain, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound terror of a pass rushing linebacker at Western Maryland College for the past four years, might be putting on his uniform for the last time tomorrow when the Green Terror travels to Abilene, Texas, to take on unbeaten Hardin-Simmons in the second round of the Division III playoffs.
But then again, he might just steal another week from the football gods, if no one minds.
"Our team is so focused right now, we're like a family," Bartolain said. "We all know what we need to do to keep this season going. We're just going to do what we do best. Play football."
It won't be the easiest of efforts, but Bartolain might be the right man for the job. Hardin-Simmons is the top-ranked team in the South bracket, and is the No. 2 Division III school in the country. But Hardin-Simmons will likely have its hands full with Bartolain, the Centennial Conference's Defensive Player of the Year who just so happens to be coming off the best game of his career, a four-sack performance in Western Maryland's first-round playoff victory over Emory and Henry on Saturday.
"They have a really big-play offense, but we've seen big-play offenses the past few weeks and shut them down," said Bartolain, who has made rock-steady play a habit during his four years at Western Maryland. "I know we're going to have fun and run to the ball."
Bartolain isn't the typical Western Maryland football player, but it has as much to do with geography as it does his team-leading 14 tackles for losses. He and quarterback Jamie "Boo" Harris played their high school ball in Sarasota, Fla., a far cry from the small town of Westminster. But they also represent a huge part of the resurrection of the Green Terror program, which lost six games in 1996, the year before they arrived, and has lost only four since.
"It's basically just dumb luck that we were able to get him [to] come here," said WMC coach Tim Keating. "[Assistant coach] Paul McCord's parents have a home in that neck of the woods, and he found some kids with some talent. Florida is such a strong state for high school football, but they really don't have any small-college programs at all there. Our school turned out to be a good fit for them, but it was dumb luck from the start."
It helped open up recruiting to the Sunshine State, and now Western Maryland boasts 14 players from Florida on its roster.
Bartolain played on one of the better teams in the country at Riverview High School in Sarasota, but he arrived at Western Maryland a little slower and skinnier than the towering figure opposing quarterbacks stare down today.
Bartolain started nine games as a freshman, and was third on the team in sacks, sixth in tackles, some games looking like he was everywhere at once. He helped lay the foundation for a powerhouse football program in the making.
"Aaron is so steady, I know I can count on him," Keating said. "He's not a rah-rah guy at all, but he leads by example. He's played hurt, and I wouldn't be surprised if he's hurting right now, but he's not telling anybody. He's just a good, steady all-around football player."
So good, in fact, Keating figures Bartolain cuts off half the field for an opposing offense. Keating says he can't recall a time when an opponent tried to run a reverse or a screen pass to his side.
After four consistent seasons, Bartolain has become the quiet leader of a senior class that's won more games (41) than any other class in Green Terror history. It has been through long bus trips and longer practices, but there is one place the class has never been: the third round of the Division III playoffs. If Western Maryland is to upset Hardin-Simmons, it will need one more major effort from Bartolain and company.
"I don't want to go out with any `what-ifs,' " Bartolain said. "I'd like to leave it all on the field and just be known for the way I played and the way I love the game."
And if Western Maryland wins, who knows? Next up might be a game against Trinity, the team that has bounced WMC from the playoffs the past two seasons. Or maybe Bridgewater, the only team to beat the Green Terror this year.
It won't be easy, but Aaron Bartolain might be the right man for the job.
What: Division III playoff, second round
Opponents: Western Maryland (10-1) vs. Hardin-Simmons (10-0)
When: Tomorrow , 1 p.m.
Site: Shelton Stadium, Abilene, Texas
Radio: WTTR (1470 AM)